The problems that forced the closure of the Children and Youth Welcome Centers in Los Angeles are not limited to the state’s largest county.
Though there is some variation in how California counties deal with housing the children who enter their child welfare system, the pressure to recruit an adequate supply of foster families and address the needs of hard-to-place youth are persistent issues throughout the state.
On Monday, Los Angeles County will complete the transition of children and youth from the welcome centers on the campus of Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center to the last of four private providers across the county.
Last month, The Chronicle of Social Change first reported that Los Angeles County’s Children and Youth Welcome Centers would be closing, in large part due to a lawsuit filed by the California Department of Social Services. The court documents alleged a regular pattern of children and youth staying in the emergency shelters beyond the 24-hour limit set by the state.
According to those documents, 16 percent of children who entered the Children’s Welcome Center stayed past the 24-hour time limit in 2014. During the same time period, 7 percent of youth who entered the Youth Welcome Center experienced an overstay.
In 2015, 5,158 children passed through both centers, according to records provided by the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
Run by DCFS, the welcome centers had provided a place for Los Angeles County to house youth while the agency sought to find out-of-home placements with kin caregivers or other foster families.
Now the four private providers tapped by the county to handle youth and children entering the system are being licensed as “transitional housing shelters,” the only such institutions designated in the state. Under this variation of a group home license, each facility will be allowed to keep children and youth for no longer than 72 hours.
About 10 counties across the state have emergency shelters for youth and children that are licensed as group homes. At these facilities, children and youth live in temporary housing as they await placement, often with a 30-day limit on the time they can spend there.
Though a few shelters are privately run, most shelters for abused and neglected children—like the one in Southern California’s Kern County—are county operated.
These placements aim to provide abused and neglected children who are entering and re-entering the system with a comfortable environment including a bed and meals. But advocates like Youth Law Center Executive Director Jennifer Rodriguez say that emergency shelters and receiving facilities like the Los Angeles County welcome centers often leave children and youth in worse shape than before they entered.
“They don’t come off these placements better and more stable and ready to enter a family,” said Rodriguez, who lived in a group home herself as a youth. “They actually come out significantly more traumatized.”
Rodriguez says the Youth Law Center has studied the use of shelters across the state, including recent developments in Los Angeles County, and she suggests that the incentives to use shelters in lieu of other arrangements—like more placements with foster parents—leads to perverse incentives.
“Once you build a shelter, they’ll never stop using it,” she said.
The Jamison Children’s Center in Bakersfield is a 24-hour emergency shelter and protective custody facility for abused, neglected and exploited children. Run by the Human Services Department of Kern County, the center offers medical care, mental health services and an on-site school, plus close coordination with the county’s legal, law enforcement and child protective services.
According to Program Director Joy Johnson, the center saw 1,574 children last year. The center houses newborns from birth to 17-year-old teens, but Johnson said that most of the children who come through the center are under age 5. Kern County employs a cohort of emergency foster parents to handle these children.
Unless the child arrives at Jamison overnight, Johnson said infants rarely stay for more than a couple hours before they are sent to an emergency foster home.
But older children are a different story. Johnson says that the average stay for older children and youth is five days. The center tries to make their stays as comfortable as possible, she says, by creating a welcoming environment with recreational activities and birthday celebrations. Jamison is not a locked facility, though each child has secure sleeping quarters.
“Some kids run from their placement to come back here,” Johnson said.
Kern County’s child welfare system pales in comparison to Los Angeles County in terms of the number of youth served. As of July 1, 2015, Kern County had 1,547 children in care, a fraction of the 18,434 kids who are part of the system in Los Angeles County. But much like its larger neighbor to the south, Kern County struggles to find foster parents, especially for older children.
“We have no place to put the 130 kids a month who come through the shelter,” Johnson said. “Until we get those homes, where are we going to put those kids?”
The only county that has closed down its shelter for abused and neglected children in recent years is Santa Clara County, according to Rodriguez.
In October 2009, amid fiscal and political pressure, Santa Clara County shuttered its children’s shelter in favor of a 24-hour assessment and intake center that functions much like the welcome centers in Los Angeles County.
Sparky Harlan, executive director of the Bill Wilson Center in Santa Clara County and a leading voice against the original shelter, said that the county has made great strides in moving away from institutional care. The Bill Wilson Center works with homeless and foster youth who come through the the Santa Clara County assessment center, which has a 24-hour limit on the time youth can stay there. The organization also operates as a foster family agency (FFA).
“I think we’ve figured out how to work with the easier part of the population of youth that had been in foster care and juvenile justice through prevention and early intervention,” Harlan said. “But now we’re into the second tier of children that are more difficult to serve. I don’t think we really have the answer for them yet.”
Like Los Angeles, the Santa Clara County assessment center sees many cases of older youth, particularly those who re-enter the system. At the Youth Welcome Center, 62 percent of youth had been through the center before, according to data provided to The Chronicle by DCFS.
Harlan said Santa Clara County has made progress in working with the needs of these youth, who are often dealing with serious mental health issues, substance abuse and violent behaviors. The county has pressed foster and group home providers to do more to work with these high needs youth before sending them back to the assessment center.
But for the Bill Wilson Center and other FFAs, the pressure to find quality foster parents who can handle this difficult population is a near constant struggle.
“We have some high level parents that are just great, but only a few of them,” Harlan said. “We’re all desperately trying to recruit a limited number of foster parents, especially in high-cost areas where they’re often working a lot.”
The Youth Law Center’s Rodriguez says that counties should be doing more to understand why children and youth end up at shelters and ways in which counties can support foster families and relative caregivers.
“Unless you get at the issues that are driving youth into those facilities, you’re just buying time,” Rodriguez said. “If the issue is that there aren’t families available, 30 days, 10 days or three days—none of that helps you with that issue.
“It pushes it down the line. You’re going to have to deal with that at some point.”